Today I talk to my first guest from Down Under, Robin Storey. Robin lives in the Sunshine Coast region of Queensland, Australia. We talk about the influence of other Australian crime writers, her natural pull toward writing comedic mystery novels and the importance of feedback from trusted sources when one is writing a book.
You can also click here to watch the episode on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview with Robin Storey
Alexandra: Hi everyone, I’m Alexandra Amor, and I’m here today with Robin Storey. Hi, Robin.
Robin: Hi, Alexandra.
Alexandra: Nice to see you.
Robin: Thanks for inviting me.
Alexandra: You’re so welcome. I’m going to give everyone a little bit of background information about you. Robin Storey is an indie author of three books: “How Not to Commit Murder,” “Perfect Sex,” and an anthology of short stories called “Comedy Shorts.” She will publish her fourth book, romantic-suspense novella, “An Affair with Danger”, in early 2016, which is a departure from her usual style, as her first three books are comedies. She lives on the beautiful Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, where sitting on the beach and watching the waves roll in gives her inspiration for her stories and is the perfect way to procrastinate. And did you know that we have a Sunshine Coast here in British Columbia too?
Robin: I do, I do. Yes.
Alexandra: Yeah, I’ve been to that one. I haven’t been to yours, though.
Alexandra: The same thing has happened to me. That’s so funny. I’d love to come to your Sunshine Coast.
Robin: Yeah, our Sunshine Coast is beautiful.
Alexandra: One day. So tell us a little bit about “How Not to Commit Murder.”
I was intrigued, because when I was doing a little bit of background on the book and the character, it made me think of Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, where the main character is a criminal, and the book is a bit comedic. So tell us about “How Not to Commit Murder”.
Robin: I’ll tell you the story first. Basically, it’s about a career conman called Reuben Littlejohn, who gets out of jail, on parole, and he decides he’s going to go straight this time. But he runs into one of his old colleagues and is blackmailed into becoming an accomplice in a plot to kill his parole officer, Lucy, with whom he happens to be madly in lust. So his dilemma is that he has to pretend to be a part of this plot to kill her, at the same time trying to save her life, trying to prevent himself from being killed or going back to jail, and all of this without his wife finding out.
Alexandra: And he’s married as well as all this.
Alexandra: Oh goodness!
Robin: Yes. So it was a lot of fun to write. One of the things that really attracted me to this story idea was the fact that the protagonist was a criminal. Because most crime and mystery stories are based around an amateur sleuth or a detective or a journalist trying to solve a mystery or a murder, and I thought this would be a real challenge, try and do a story where the criminal was the protagonist and also make someone who essentially rips people off for a living someone that the reader could empathize with. And I think I’ve succeeded, because I’ve had a lot of readers say to me, “I didn’t want to like him but I just couldn’t help it.” So that was the thing that attracted me to that particular story.
I did wonder, when I started to write it, how easy it would be for me to put myself in the mind of a 30-something , I think he’s 31 or 32 in the book, 32-year-old male, which I’m obviously not and far from, but once I started writing it, I found it was a lot easier than I thought. When I finished the book, I gave it to my partner to read, and he’s not a 32-year-old, but he can remember what it was like to be 32, just from the point of view of authenticity, did I get it right. And for the most part, I did, a couple of minor changes, so I was happy with that.
Alexandra: That’s fantastic. You anticipated my next question which was about writing from the male perspective. That’s not something I’ve tried all that much.
My follow up question then is about writing from the point of view of a con-man, because I’m assuming you’re not a con-man either.
Robin: No. I guess that was made easier for me, because I was working as a probation and parole officer for many years up until I retired last year to become a full time author. So, I, as you can imagine, met many characters over the years, heard about many different situations, so that was actually how the idea germinated.
Even though Reuben is not based on any one character that I’ve met, he’s a combination of different sorts of characters plus a hefty dose of imagination thrown in. So I guess that was easier for me to put myself in the shoes of a con-man having heard lots of different con-men tell me their stories.
Alexandra: What an amazing body of research you must have accumulated in that subject.
Robin: Yes, I have, definitely. It’s been really good in that respect for ideas for novels.
I’ve used this quote with another author that I interviewed earlier that “drama is easy, and comedy is hard,” but you seem to lean toward comedic novels. Do you find that’s your natural voice?
Robin: Yes, I do. Writing comedies comes easily to me and I think it’s just my world view. I have quite a quirky, absurdist sense of humor, and I grew up in a family where we are always trying to outdo each other with witty repartee. I’ve read a lot of comedy over the years. I’ve written a lot of comedy, because I think you do have to have a natural bank for it, to be able write it, but on the other hand, it’s like any other genre. You can certainly hone your skills with lots of practice and lots of feedback. That’s what I’ve done over the years.
I was a freelance writer for many years, along with being a probation and parole officer, and a lot of the articles I wrote for newspapers and magazines were of humorous quality. I had my own column in my local newspaper for quite a few years, and I could write about whatever I wanted, and that was usually of a humorous bank too. I’ve really honed my skills over the years.
Alexandra: Do you read a lot of comedic novels as well?
Robin: I do. I’ve a got a really broad range of books that I read. I’ve always read crime, right from when I was a teenager, started off with Agatha Christie, read all of hers several times. But I do read a lot of comedy and I do find that reading comedy really helps me to write it, because even though I’m not mimicking those authors that I’m reading, it just helps me to find my own comedic voice. Somebody who really springs to mind, whose books are a laugh, is American humorist David Sedaris. His books are hilarious, I find them hilarious.
In my genre, comedy crime or humorous mysteries, as it’s also called, there’re a couple of writers whom I really enjoy. One of them is an Irish writer called Colin Batemen. He’s written quite a few funny crime novels, and they are really quite funny. Some are laugh out loud, some of them. He’s got a couple of different series with different characters. Another one is Christopher Brookmyre. He’s doing serious crime novels at the moment, but for many years, he was also doing comedy crime and he has a very good satirical aspect to his novels. So reading those helps me to hone my own skills and gives me inspiration for my own novels.
Comedic crime is not something you see on every corner. It’s a little bit of a more rare bird, wouldn’t you say?
Robin: It is, which is kind of good and bad. It does mean there’s not quite so many readers out there who are looking for comedy crime. But on the other hand, it does mean that it’s a niche that you can really, really target with people who like comedy crime. You may find your readers a little easier because you have that niche, that niche ground.
Lucy, the parole officer in the book, is she modeled on yourself then?
Robin: She’s young and gorgeous, so no.
Alexandra: So yes. ;-)
Robin: She’s not really modeled on anybody specific, but I had a lot of fun writing that particular part of the book where he’s on parole and he goes in to meet his parole officer. It has to jump through all of the hoops, because I know that system inside out, back to front, so I was really able to poke a lot of fun at some the things that go on within that setting. She’s probably not really based on anyone in particular.
Alexandra: I always find it interesting if authors discover that a character does things that surprise them, things that the author didn’t expect.
Robin: That’s a good question, because I often read about authors who say that the characters have just taken over the book and they just have to run along with them and follow where they’re going. I haven’t really had that experience, I have to say. For the most part, I keep my characters firmly in check. I’m one of those people who likes to plot my novels, and so I like to have – not to point where I have to know what’s going on in each scene, but I do need to know where all the major events are happening and how it’s going to end. Generally speaking, my characters, I’ve leisurely worked out what they’re going to do.
Alexandra: I’ve never read an Australian crime novel, I have to confess.
Is there a sub-genre of that as well, Australian crime novels? There must be.
Robin: There’s lots of Australian crime novels, actually, and there’s a lot of comedy crime, actually, coming from Australia at the moment, especially by women and along the genre of Janet Evanovich. I don’t know if you’ve read any of hers. I’ve read a few of hers, with her Stephanie Plum novels. There are a quite a few female authors in Australia at the moment coming out with similar sorts of novels, where the female is the protagonist or a journalist or amateur sleuth of some sort and the novels are quite lighthearted.
Having said that, there are a lot of serious crime novels in Australia. I guess the most famous person that we can mention is Michael Robotham. I think he won a major award, the Golden Dagger or whatever it is. I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called. He’s written a lot of really, really good crime books. He’s probably our best known crime novelist. But funnily enough, he doesn’t set his books in Australia.
Alexandra: Where are they set?
Robin: Usually in England or the United States.
How big of a role does setting play in your books?
Robin: The setting does definitely play a role. I think it has to play a role in every book. The setting in “How Not to Commit Murder” takes place in Brisbane, which is our capital city of Queensland, and I live about 100 kilometers from there. And I suppose it was because it’s an Australian book, it had to place somewhere, I thought, let’s have it take place in Brisbane. There’s not a lot of crime books written taking place in Brisbane, and that was another reason why I thought that would be something a little bit different.
Alexandra: Yes, it’s interesting.
When I think of gritty crime novels, I think of England and Scotland, but when I think of Australia, I think of sunshine and wide open spaces and all that kind of thing, so gritty crime doesn’t come to mind right away.
Robin: It doesn’t. Then again, looking at places like Sydney and Melbourne, there’s some gritty crime that’s come out of there. Melbourne, in particular, has an underbelly of crime there. Peter Corris, he’s got a series of private detective, I can’t think of the name. He’s written a series of novels that take place in Sydney and some of those are really quite gritty. But yes, you do associate Australia with more of the outback. Another crime novelist, Gary Disher, has written a number of novels which evoke that outback country town type of scene.
Alexandra: The other thing I think of when I think of Australian novels are actually historical novels, and a bit like American Westerns, but set in the outback, in small towns a while ago. I don’t know if that’s a misconception.
Robin: I haven’t read any, to be honest.
Alexandra: No? Okay, yeah, I don’t know why that comes to mind for me.
Robin: There are some novels set way back in the Gold Rush Era, for example, Convict Era, which would be very interesting to read. I haven’t actually read any.
Alexandra: You’ve decided to go ahead and do a series of “How Not To” mystery novels. So tell us a little bit about the next one that you’re thinking about.
Robin: The next one which I’m about to start writing is going to be called “How Not to Rob A Bank.” And I haven’t fully worked out the details of the plot yet, but it’s about two women, two young women holding up a bank. And of course, things go wrong, otherwise there won’t be much of a story.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Robin: And that’s about as much as far as I’ve got. It ends up a kind of a hostage situation, where they’re holding hostages, and you might think, “Well, how can you get get comedy out of that?” But I will.
Alexandra: Yes, for sure. Set in Brisbane again?
Robin: Probably, because “How Not to Commit Murder” was set in Brisbane, I’m thinking I may set this one in Brisbane as well.
Alexandra: What is your writing practice like? You’ve mentioned you do do an outline and you know when the major plot points are going to happen. Anything else that goes into your writing practice?
Robin: No. I’ve read a really good book, “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks, which has been very helpful to me in learning how to plot all the different parts of the story and where they all fit in. So I try and do a bit of an outline according to his particular way of doing it. I try to do character profiles, not really in-depth, but I really like to know my characters and to be able to see them in my head, hear them speaking, before I start writing because I do find it difficult to do dialogue if I don’t know the character very well. So I do need to have that.
One thing I have found very helpful is I will go on the Internet and I’ll find photos of people who look approximately the same as my characters. And I download those images and I put them in my research folder. I have those images in front of me when I’m writing, and that helps me to orient myself with that particular character and what they might say or do. And same with settings, if I can find a photo of a particular setting that I’m writing about in the book, I’ll have that in front of me as well. It helps me get myself into the scene.
Alexandra: How long do you find it takes to write a novel?
Robin: Well, a long time previously, because I was doing it while working. My job was only part time, but even so, it used to take me quite some time to write a novel. I think it took me about three years or something to write “How Not to Commit Murder” from the word go. I’m hoping it will take me considerably less time now that I’m a full time indie author.
I’ve given myself three months to do the next one. And I’m not quite sure of how long it’s going to be yet. So that’s another thing I have to work out. The important thing is to set yourself deadlines and stick to them. Otherwise you just don’t get anything done.
Alexandra: Yes, I totally agree. Yes, exactly.
I noticed that one of your reviewers said that your book “How Not to Commit Murder” “Blends just the right about of comedy and crime”. That’s high praise indeed when you’re juggling those two.
Robin: Yes, it is. It is actually. I have to say, for me, the comedy is as much an important element of the book as the crime. But of course, you have to have a decent story as well, otherwise people aren’t going to want to read it, and good characters that people feel that are real. That’s another thing readers have said to me, “I really like your characters. They’re really real characters.”
Alexandra: You said that you don’t do too much character building when you’re outlining your story, but obviously, you must have a really strong feel for who the person is, if that’s coming through in the writing.
Robin: Yes, definitely. I actually do a written character profile and look at all the various aspects of the characters, like when they were born or what they’re like. Those things don’t necessarily go into the book, but they just help me to flesh out new character. If I’m having difficulty writing a character or they’re not coming together or I can’t do the dialogue, then I know that I haven’t thought that character through enough and I have to go back to the drawing board and think about them a bit more.
Alexandra: So the two girls who are going to be in the next one, “How Not to Rob A Bank,” have you started thinking about their characters yet, or is it too early to say?
Robin: I have, but I haven’t written anything down yet because the idea’s been swirling around in the back of my mind for some time, actually, but both of them with have completely different motivations for why they’re actually wanting to do this, which will be brought into the story as well.
Alexandra: Yeah, fantastic, sounds fantastic.
Robin: It’s one of those ideas I’ve had in my Brilliant Ideas folder, which I keep on my computer. And every time I have an idea for a story, even if it might just be a few words or a sentence, something I’ve heard on the news or whatever, I’ll put it in that folder, and then I can go in and look at that and expand on it.
Alexandra: Yeah, it’s so important to capture those ideas when they occur to you, isn’t it?
Robin: Yes, absolutely. I do find that some writers don’t like to talk about their books while they’re writing them, because they, I don’t know, but cheats them or they don’t want to be unnecessarily swayed by someone else’s opinion, but I do find it useful to talk over my plot with my partner before I start. He often comes up with good suggestions. “Why don’t you make it that sounds stuff happens or why don’t you…” I can, that’s a good idea. It’s good to have a sounding board which saves me from maybe writing half a book and then thinking, “No, this isn’t really working.”
Alexandra: Do you walk him through it in pieces or do you lay it out all out for him in one go and see what he thinks?
Robin: When I’ve got an idea for a novel, I’ll say, “Well what about this, this is what I’m thinking will happen,” and he’ll come back and say, “Yeah, but you know what, I think it would better this way or have this character in…” And if I’m stumped and can’t think of where I want the story to go, I’ll often use just him as a soundboard and he’s often come up with suggestions. He’s not a writer himself, but he’s an avid reader and that makes a big difference. He’s one of my beta readers. I think it’s really important to have beta readers go over your work before you finish as well.
Alexandra: Yes, absolutely, and two heads are better than one.
Robin: Yes, absolutely.
Alexandra: Well, this has been awesome, Robin. Thank you so much for talking with me today. Why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find your books?
Robin: My books are available on Amazon and Smashwords and if you want to have a look at my website, it’s Storey-Lines.com. I’ve also got my books listed on the website as well, with a bit of a blurb about what they’re about, if people want to come over and have a look. If anyone is interested for signing up for my newsletter, you can get a copy of “How Not to Commit Murder” for free.
Alexandra: Awesome. And I love it, I meant to say this, right off the, top that your last name is Storey, S-T-O-R-E-Y.
Robin: Yes, it’s so appropriate, isn’t it?
Alexandra: And that’s really your last name.
Robin: Well, it’s actually the name from my second marriage, which ended in divorce, but I really thought to myself, if I was going to go back to my maiden name, and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to just keep this name.” It’s so much easier, for a start. I’m essentially lazy when it comes to that sort of stuff, it’s a real hassle changing your name. But also I thought, “That’s a perfect name for a writer.” If I take nothing else out of this marriage, I’ll take the name. That’s how I ended up with the name.
Alexandra: It’s fantastic.
Robin: Very appropriate.
Alexandra: I interviewed someone a few weeks ago and she writes crime novels as well, and her last name was Blood.
Robin: Oh, fantastic.
Alexandra: Yeah, so incredible interviewing the two of you with these amazing names. It was meant to be, obviously, that you were to be writers.
Robin: Yes, that’s right.
Alexandra: Thank you again so much, Robin. Take care.
Robin: Thanks, it was fun. Thanks, Alexandra.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Bye.